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A Future Made in Bioplastics

The CEO of Bio-Plastic Solutions LLC, in Blooming Prairie, Minn., showed off his new product at AURI’s “Biobased Products: a Focus on Bioplastics” conference held August 17 in Mankato. Noble told participants that the window trim’s interior, made with wheat straw fiber and polymers “is basically two and a half times stronger than anything that we were up against” on the market.

A window manufacturer is looking at the biobased trim and, as Noble says, investors pay attention when “you’ve got somebody at the table who says ‘I’m interested; I’m ready to engage.’ ”

Meeting of the bio-minds

Noble, part of a four-member discussion panel, was among more than 80 attending the AURI bioproducts event that brought together representatives of agricultural and manufacturing industries, academia, government and economic development to discuss a recently-released AURI report. They looked at bioplastic manufacturing opportunities, challenges and a strategic plan for Minnesota.

Bio-Plastic Solutions, a plastic components manufacturer, converted to cornstarch-based polylactic acid (PLA) eight years ago and is one of the first in the nation to use renewable polymers in plastic profile extrusion. The company makes BioBest® parts for doors, windows, wall trim, office furniture and medical devices that contain more than 80 percent biobased carbon.

“Our goal is to meet (the needs) of these customers who are asking for something new,” Noble says. “We’ve decided to stop using the word “alternative” and say we’re just going to create a product” that meets what “our customers are asking for.”

The conference, funded in part by Minnesota’s Soybean Growers and Corn Growers associations and Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, culminated almost two years of AURI’s comprehensive review of bioproducts. The initiative’s first phase was completed earlier this year with release of a Minnesota manufacturers’ survey and global market study by the Russell Herder Agency in Minneapolis. (see Ag Innovation News April-June 2011)

“One thing we find with biobased products is manufacturers are willing to use them,” says Dennis Timmerman, AURI project director. “But they ask the questions: does it perform well and is it cost effective?”

Almost two-thirds of manufacturers surveyed say they expect to use more bioproducts in the future, but 39 percent report being uninformed about biobased potential.

To follow-up on the study, “a group of industry thought leaders came together on May 4, heard a presentation on the report and came up with a list of priorities,” says Jen Wagner-Lahr, AURI innovation director. The top 10 recommendations were presented at the August 17 event where, after presentations, three small groups met to design action plans.“We’re trying to be deliberate in getting this in the hands of people,” says Dan Lemke, AURI communications director, who moderated the event, “… to drive this and get the right people on the bus and get it going.”

Opportunities now

Bioproducts may take over markets in the future, but are there opportunities right now?

Yes, said panel member Doug Cameron, director of Alberti Advisors, which provides technical and financial consulting to green-industry companies. “Biobased chemicals in general are extremely hot these days,” he says. “For pretty much every polymer, there is effort to make them biobased.”

For example, companies are working on biobased polyethelene, nylon and PET plastic for beverage bottles. “Coca Cola and Pepsi want to make them completely renewable.” Cameron, a chemical engineer and molecular biologist, worked in biobased research and development at Cargill, which owns NatureWorks LLC, makers of Ingeo biopolymer for products such as beverage bottles, mobile phone casings, food packaging, dinnerware, gift cards, even diapers. Ingeo is used by manufacturers worldwide.

“As a chemist, I get excited thinking about what brand new monomers could we come up with,” said panel member Dean Webster, a North Dakota State University polymer chemist. Monomers are small molecules that can be chemically bound to form polymers, and if they have “sets of properties that you can’t achieve with petrochemical-based materials, then you could create a market demand.”

In Minnesota, the “nearest-term” opportunities are in molded durable plastics for interior use, pressure-sensitive adhesives, foam and packaging, states the AURI report. Plastic bottles, however, are a challenge “because Minnesota doesn’t have a waste system that can process (compostable plastics) quickly,” says Carol Russell, CEO of Russell Herder Agency. Some biodegradable plastic bottles can’t be recycled with other plastics. It requires a different facility for handling it.”

Changing perception

“Manufacturers in Minnesota know there is opportunity,” Russell says. “They are getting calls from customers. The hurdle is they don’t know a lot about it. Will it work in their systems? Is it going to be expensive? They need to increase their awareness and understanding.”

“We in Minnesota need to be able to connect with all the companies to be able to explain why this product would be beneficial to them — because they are confused,” said panel member Jim Lunt, a biomaterials consultant and former Cargill chemist who has been involved in bioplastics development since the early 1990s.

“Many people do not know the properties of the materials that are available,” he says. “They ask, ‘can we convert this product to a biomaterial and be more sustainable?’ And they don’t know the answer, because they don’t know the performance of the products.”

“There is the perception that the quality isn’t as good — versus petro … so it is important to increase awareness of what the economic development opportunity here is and how it could become advantageous for many areas of Minnesota.”

Investors are often skeptical. “It can be very difficult for a start-up company in this sector to get the funding to do the research and the exploration to bring these products to market,” Russell says.

The challenge is to help the financial community “see why (bioproducts) would be good investments.” Increased access to capital “for developing sustainable products for new or existing markets,” needs to be explored, she says.

Connecting the dots

Noble says his company’s success evolved by tapping outside resources. “We’ve connected the dots through a variety of groups,” he says.

Years ago, AURI connected Noble to NDSU researchers that led to a network of resources such as the University of Minnesota, state universities in Winona and Mankato, Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, Jim Lunt and Minnesota manufacturers — including the window company that is interested in Bio-Plastic Solutions’ product.

“Once you get a few customers buying a product, trying a product, it spreads. It’s not something done behind a lot of closed doors. Everybody knows what (companies) are doing; they’re just waiting for someone to take that first step.”

Cameron agrees: “It’s really all about being very networked and having the manufacturers and producers and

everybody talking.”

Proprietary information can pose a challenge to getting the word out,” Russell says. “There are a lot of confidentiality issues … (manufacturers) don’t want to divulge what they’re doing. But innovation can move more quickly if there is

more sharing.”

Academic and private institutions are both investigating bioproducts “but all the parties aren’t necessarily talking to each other,” she says.

A community of innovators

To nurture a bioproducts industry, “how do we form a concrete consortium that says: we have the right people to drive Minnesota companies to be a player in this field?” Lunt says. “How do we make it more formal than relying on some of us who know each other?”

The AURI report recommends building an “innovation community” — in effect a support group that brings together private and public people with a vested interest in bioplastics.

“It would be similar to what’s happening in renewables with the Roundtable,” Russell says, referring to regular working-group sessions coordinated by AURI. Representatives of business, academic and research institutions, ag groups and government meet to advance ideas on building Minnesota’s renewable energy industry — now a national leader in biofuels.

Following the bioproducts event, it became clear “there is a great need to connect the dots and continually so … then action can take place,” Wagner-Lahr says.

An active roundtable would also “squarely put this opportunity on the radar of key decision makers and economic development people – that this needs further development and exploration,” Russell says.

Attracting manufacturing

A “slight weakness” with building a bioplastics industry here is “there is very little actual manufacturing of the plastics in Minnesota,” Cameron says. “We’ve got great research and development, start-up companies and universities. We’ve got people who are formulating and building and making things, but we don’t have the manufacturing.”

“We have the soybean and the crushing facilities. To complete the circle, we need the companies and the technology to be able to utilize and build biobased products here,” states Jim Palmer of the Minnesota Soybean Growers in the AURI report.

Co-locating raw material processing, testing and manufacturing to create a ‘biorefinery campus’ could help. “Minnesota is uniquely qualified to take on the opportunity of a growing biobased market … there has already been a great deal of success in biofuels,” Russell says.

Ethanol could be the centerpiece for a biorefinery campus structured as a co-op, the bioproducts report states. “The campus could include incubators for start-up green chemical companies and manufacturing with biomaterials, such as using distillers grains as plastics strengtheners and waste glycerol from biodiesel production to make bioplastics.”

The “campus approach” can also be achieved “when business and economic development people are geographically linked,” Russell says. “It becomes a regional opportunity.”

Harold Stanislawski has been finding ways for the Fergus Falls Economic Improvement Commission, which he heads, to support local manufacturers’ conversion to renewable polymers. Shore Master of Fergus Falls, which makes boat docks and other marina products, is interested in incorporating biomaterials if they are competitive on price and performance. Vinylite, a windows and doors manufacturer in Fergus Falls, Minn., is developing a soy-based polyoil insulation for window frames.

More action than words

“AURI wants to build a network of individuals interested in biobased and get people together to hear what industry participants have to say,” Wagner-Lahr says. “In terms of technology, we want to know what they are interested in to deliver services tailored to their research needs.”

“AURI is not just trying to do research, but creating change through innovation. That’s exciting,” Russell says.

“They have a very clear process for how to take information and turn it into action: Do the research, gather the thought leaders, then put it into the field.”

AURI staff are reviewing results of the August 17 event “to identify action items and determine the most optimal routes for implementation,” including follow-up sessions for interested participants, Wagner-Lahr says.

“What does the future look like? It’s going to be dramatically different than right now,” Noble says. “We’re in the early stages so everything is changing. … What it looks like is dependent on those who are out there who want to try something. It’s wide open.”